Students in the Austin school district can now get a taste of the tech industry through a STEM learning center and partnership with Dell Technologies at Northeast Early College High School.
The new center for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics allows students to work in a space mirroring the high-tech and collaborative offices common in the industry.
It will support the school’s hands-on early college program in information technology, which provides students with free Austin Community College classes and the opportunity to earn an associate degree in applied science with a specialization in cybersecurity.
“We knew that students sitting in rows in a traditional classroom setting wasn’t preparing them for what happens next,” Assistant Principal Kevin Garcia said during a Wednesday tour of the center. “It wasn’t preparing them for the college experience. It wasn’t preparing them for the industry.”
The center, carved out in a renovated section of the high school, equips students with space to explore virtual reality and esports, interactive screens and classrooms, a computer lab with 34 of the latest Dell desktops and a high-powered server.
The $300,000 server, separate from the district’s computer network, will serve as a “sandbox” for students to experiment and explore cybersecurity without putting at risk the district’s network, Garcia said.
The renovation cost around $1.5 million, Garcia said, and it was made possible by the collaboration with Dell, according to district leaders. Students in the program also will receive tours, mentorship and post-graduation interviews with Dell, which is headquartered in Round Rock.
“And so not only are you able to go into this place that replicates the experience you would have if you were at Dell, you’ll get a chance to have a wonderful compensation for it,” Anthony Mays, chief of schools for the district, told 21 freshmen in the program Wednesday.
The partnership builds upon the district’s early college programs to prepare students at the school, made up of 82% Hispanic students and 13% Black students, to enter the growing tech industry in Austin and the United States.
For Dell, which began collaborating with the school district in 2015, the goal is to give back to the Austin community while ensuring a future tech workforce, said Snow White, an education strategist for the company.
White said the company predicts a global labor shortage of 4.3 million people in the tech industry by 2030.
“That’s a staggering number when you think about it, and this is an industry that drives progress,” she said. “So us at Dell, we need folks, students like you, to build that pipeline.”
The program focuses on cybersecurity, which has become an increasingly important field in tech, but it also will give students the opportunity to learn about the growing fields of gaming, esports and virtual reality.
“We know that cybersecurity is going to be there as long as you need it,” Garcia said. “But if it doesn’t, we also know that you are going to prepare to pivot in whichever direction it takes us.”
District leaders said the collaboration at the high school will serve as a pilot to expand or create similar career-driven programs across the district.
Navarro Early College High School in North Austin, for example, offers similar programs focused on computer programming and user experience design.
Creslond Fannin, the district’s executive director of early college high schools and P-TECH programs, said officials have been in talks with ACC and Tesla, which is moving its headquarters to Austin, in hopes of creating another collaboration.
“One of the bigger things that we found out is that we really need to do stronger alignment with our math program, starting as early as third and fourth grade, really getting them on that advanced track so that they’re really prepared for the mathematics that’s behind working on such intricate pieces such as at Tesla,” she said.
For now, she hopes the STEM center and Dell partnership will lead students to jobs.
“STEM is one of the fastest growing areas that we have in this nation that is going to be really employable for everyone, and the associate’s degree is really going to put them a step ahead, even possibly for some leadership positions when they apply for the job,” she said.